Week 11 Structures of Feeling and Gender Roles in War

This weeks readings all focus on the roles of gender in war and how they are challenged, upheld, rebuilt, or contorted to achieve a purpose of engaging or denouncing war. These articles tie in some of the concepts from last weeks reading, while introducing us to new concepts that made me think about America’s military, war as a gendered normative, and how gender can be constructed for purposes of war or peace.

In her article “Cindy Sheehan and the Rhetoric of Motherhood: A Textual Analysis,” Laura Knudson examines Cindy Sheehan’s peace activism through a textual analysis of her book Peace Mom and its counter American Mourning to examine the rhetoric surrounding the conflicting views about war, motherhood, and activism through a mother’s perspective. Knudson finds that the “central role of discourses of motherhood play in Sheehan’s ability to craft maternal politics of peace” (Knudson, 164). The rhetorical strategy of using motherhood as a trope has been one that dates back to the first wave of feminism. It is used to evoke pathos in its audience and gain credibility in an argument. This rhetorical strategy is is also extremely effective at achieving its purpose as it is hard to denounce a mother and her experiences. This is ironic as this trope of motherhood is also being used against itself to prove a counterargument, which is equally as effective. Sheehan’s argument that is most strongly linked to this idea is found on page 172. Knudson claims “…patriotisms mirror opposite is matriotism” (Knudson, 172). Sheehan’s smart argument turns patriotism on its head to refute all of its aspects of militarism, nationalism, duty to country, love for country, and replaces them with pacifistic arguments. This article, by Cindy Sheehan published in the Huff Post, further examines “matriotism” and its nuances, which add extra background information to Knudson’s article.

Rebecca A. Adelman’s research on post 9/11 photographs of the Iraq war help shape America’s narratives and meaning of “militarized and imaged masculinity in the global war on terrorism” (261). Her work titled “Sold(i)ering Masculinity” analyzed a collection of photographs from a volume of The War in Iraq: A Photo History published in 2003  and its militarized images as they correlate to race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Since September 11, 2001, remembering in America has adopted a new way of mourning as a patriotic duty. Americans were told by the government to return to consumerism while continuously commemorating those who died in the attacks (the twin towers as well). Popular rhetoric of that time anthropomorphized the twin towers as ‘twin brothers’ a symbol of our nations manhood. Adelman aims to understand how Americas post 9/11 manhood can be restored, through photographs of the Iraq war to help remember, reconstitute, and reaffirm American masculinity (Adelman, 263). This article provides understanding about the de-sexed nation after 9/11 and what it meant for men.

The section of her article I believe is most interesting is “Washed Clean.” Adelman opens the section with popular rhetoric that masculinized The Pentagon and the World Trade center as a place of business and war. The destruction of these two buildings threatened Americas masculinity. Adelman notes, “America was no longer male an impenetrable but proven to have porous borders and gaping holes in its security apparatus” (275). This leaves a “nostalgia for lost masculinity” (Adelman, 275) and the idea that masculinity was always greater in earlier history. This notion makes me think of political rhetoric of today. Trump’s use of reclaiming America’s masculinity through “Make America Great Again.” I question: what are we reclaiming that was so great in history? Why do we want to reclaim it when there are advancements being made culturally and socially? This New York Times article provides some context to Trumps rhetoric and adheres to the notion of American masculinity examined by Adelman.

Eva Berger and Dorit Naaman conduct a qualitative content analysis of many news images/captions to show the depiction of Israeli women soldiers in the mass media since the 2006 Lebanon War. In their article, “Combat cuties: photographs of Israeli women soldiers in the press since the 2006 Lebanon War” Berger and Naaman argue that there is a direct ambivalence in the Israeli media towards women’s service in combat roles and the idea that, “… since women combatants challenge social codes of gendered femininity in areas that are in constant state of war, their actions are contained and minimized in the images published in the press” (Berger & Naaman, 272). Berger and Naaman drew from both ‘enlisted’ media and privately owned media to support their arguments. It is no secret that women are underrepresented in the media, however I believe Berger and Naaman take this notion further in the section of their article titled “From combat cuties to combat pussies.” In this section, Berger and Naaman analyze the response of entertainment magazines to the 2006 Lebanon War. Specifically, the July 2007 Maxim Magazine, that was co-produced by the Israeli government, published an issue dedicated to five of the Israeli women soldiers, but were it not for the title of the shoot or the captions accompanying the photos, one would not know these women were soldiers. Berger and Naaman found that this issue “…. Embodies both the patriarchal and nationalist aspects of chauvinism” which in turn undermined Israeli women’s success in changing legislation to partake in combat roles in the military. Overall, Berger and Naaman concluded that violence threatens traditional notions of femininity and masculine order of military establishment that was prominent in all news or entertainment magazines. This article by NPR highlights the limitations set by the Israeli military and government through interviews with Israeli women soldiers.

11 thoughts on “Week 11 Structures of Feeling and Gender Roles in War

  • April 1, 2018 at 6:37 pm

    Alex, thanks for getting this post up so early! I definitely picked up on some of the same key concepts as you, and I have some others that I thought might be beneficial to add. I too thought Knudson’s article discussed ways that motherhood was used as a tool for pathos generation.There are several non-profit organizations, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) comes to mind, that use the trope of motherhood effectively for their pathos. Interestingly in our article, Knudson went on to describe how motherhood, particularly the trope of the bad mother, was used to erode the ethos of Cindy Sheehan and her argument. It seems to me, based on our previous class discussions, that when a mother is operating within a dominant ideology motherhood is positive and has a strong base of power. Contrastingly, when a mother like Cindy Sheehan tries to use her motherhood against a dominant ideology of war many want to label her as problematic.

    Berger and Naaman’s piece on Israeli female performs some powerful critical analysis, and I think you sum up their article well. Before reading this article I had seem hypersexualized images like those discussed of Israeli female soldiers in combat uniforms, it seems Israeli women in particular are often singled out in this global military phenomena. I thought their discussion of the Global Media Monitoring Project’s finding was a powerful illustration of how biased toward the male perspective our mainstream media platforms are. Adelman’s article only further compounds the current need for greater intentionality in our media’s representation of soldiers and individuals across the globe. I also agree that the Israeli government’s co-sponsoring of the Maxim Magazine issue is massively problematic and indicative of a global historic failure to realize this intentionality.

    • April 4, 2018 at 9:13 am

      Hey Collin,

      Thanks for your response! I have to say I agree with you, the trope of the bad mother was used to erode the ethos of Cindy Sheehan and her argument. This was particularly interesting because Sheehan was operating outside the dominant ideology. War rhetoric is extremely masculinized, so when a women is advocating for peace, using a feminized argument (peace and matriotism), there is a lot of room for protest against and undermining her argument. This clearly makes Cindy a threat to the dominant ideology and speaks to how she operates within it.

  • April 1, 2018 at 10:36 pm

    Hi Alex. I like that you brought Knudson’s reading towards first wave feminism, where appeals to motherhood were often invoked. As I was reading Knudon’s article and came across her question: “Why did it take the mother (and specifically the mother, not the father, sister, brother, or wife) of a soldier killed in Iraq to wake the media to the other side of the story?” I too thought back to the roles of motherhood that we’ve discussed in previous RhCS courses, particularly Dr. Tonn’s Feminism course. In that class last semester, we discussed ways in which motherhood was used to appeal to male audiences, as women posited themselves as morally equal from having lived through particular experiences derived from their motherhood. Often this would result in an argument suggesting that they should be granted particular rights given the experiences and character qualities that they have demonstrated via their motherhood. Knudon’s question about what is so specific about motherhood in this instance is interesting because we know from her article that Sheehan’s protests were not received without criticism.

    One tension that I find particularly difficult to deal with is Knudson’s mention of the ways in which Sheehan’s appeals to motherhood harmed her cause due to the fact that the “rhetoric surrounding women (and thus, frequently, mothers) is that of emotion, which given the popular culture dichotomy between logic and emotion, canceled out the logic in favor of the emotion” (167). Given that this perception exists (regardless of whether it is true), I wonder what ways a mother (or a woman in general) can make use of her gender to further her arguments in effective ways that do not get punished for associations with being emotional?

    • April 4, 2018 at 9:18 am

      Hey Katie!

      I found it difficult to deal with the ways Knudson mentioned how Sheehan’s trope of motherhood hurt her argument rather than advanced it and I too wonder what ways women in general can make use of their gender to further their arguments? Based on our Rhetoric & Feminism classes and discussion from RHCS 490, I think women are still trying to find a voice in activism. That is not to say there has been great progress though. I believe we can look at movements like #MeToo or #TimesUp as examples to show how women are banning together, using their gender to say enough is enough: sexual assault and equality in pay and representation has to be exposed.

  • April 1, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    I found Laura Knudsons’s article, “Cindy Sheehan and the Rhetoric of Motherhood: A Textual Analysis,” fascinating and enriching in that, for the first time in the semester, it was a text that focused on femininity rather than masculinity as a factor in war (and anti-war) rhetoric in the United States. Knudson’s article, when read alongside other readings about masculinity and war, implicitly presents several new dichotomies to consider when studying American war rhetoric in the 21st century. Alex, I think you present some very interesting points about how this rhetoric of motherhood can be effective in transforming dominant war rhetoric by allowing more pacifist ideologies to enter the discourse. However, I think it is also worth considering the opposite perspective, that is to say the criticism that Sheehan garnered in response to her outspoken activism. First, Knudson observes that “[Sheehan’s] letter to President Bush makes reference to Casey as her child no less than twenty times within three pages” (Knduson, 2009, p. 166). The fact that Sheehan addresses her son as a/her child presents a challenge to the masculine, highly-trained warrior that the War on Terror favors in the rhetorical construction of the American soldier. Additionally, while you do an excellent job pointing out Sheehan’s rhetorical successes that Knudson describes, Knudson also observes that “focus on Sheehan as a mother distracted from her logical arguments against the war…given the popular culture dichotomy between logic and emotion” (Knudson, 2009, p. 167). I found that that section of Knudson’s article implicitly set up a perceived dichotomy between man/soldier and woman/mother, favoring the qualities of the soldier in war.

    • April 4, 2018 at 9:29 am

      Hi Emily!

      I agree with you that Knudson constructed a dichotomy between the man/soldier and the woman/mother consequently favoring the soldier in war. I found it particularly striking that the focus on Sheehan as a mother undermined her activism and discredited her argument. Going off of this, I want to point out the counter book to “Peace Mom”, “American Mourning.” The sections of this book analyzed were particularly striking as the two women authors were using dominant, masculine ideology (upholding patriarchal norms) to discredit and demoralize Sheehan. This type of rhetoric plays directly into the 21st century pro-war rhetoric that is does not leave much room for criticism.

  • April 2, 2018 at 8:41 am


    Thanks for your summaries of this week’s readings, I think you highlight some really significant points that these authors are trying to make. I also think you do a great job of relating these readings to political rhetoric today. I too, found Adelman’s section, “Washed Clean,” very interesting, and would like to focus specifically on the discussion of the male body in the context of The War in Iraq, “British Soldiers Under Improvised Shower” photograph. Adelman highlights that photographs like these are unsettling because they expose that men have real bodies, which implies that those bodies can fail. We are unused to seeing images of men, nonetheless soldiers, naked, and when we do in this situation, Adelman claims context is very important. Without it, British and American conventional perceptions about homosexuality in the military are surfaced, and “this image addresses the threat of the the secretly gay solider while ultimately relying on the assumption that only a real (read: straight) man would be tough enough for combat.”

    Let’s look at a modern day photo, similar in its apparent setting (beach) and structure of a group of semi-naked individuals huddled together, but gets at something much different. This photo (http://www.2oceansvibe.com/2016/02/10/at-56-heres-the-oldest-sports-illustrated-swimsuit-model-ever/) is taken from a Sports Illustrated cover and features 8 female swimsuit models grouped together on a beach, in wearing nothing more than their bikini bottoms.
    While these photos are very different in context and meaning, I think we can get at some of Adelman’s points when comparing how accepted perceptions of masculinity are applied when looking at similar photographs. We as a culture don’t expect, and therefore often don’t accept photos like the one of the naked soldiers showering, and are quick to make assumptions about the controversy it suggests regarding masculinity and sexuality. However, we as a culture are very accepting of photos like the naked models on the beach, and the majority of our society would have little to question about the controversy surrounding feminism and the exploitation of sexuality that an image like that on the cover of a largely male-consumed magazine suggests. Adelman certainly highlights some questions about perceptions of masculinity, and I think this comparison contributes to that conversation.

    • April 4, 2018 at 9:52 am

      Hey Tegan!

      Thanks for adding a link to your response! I definitely understand the point you are making by connecting Adelman to this Sports Illustrated photo. Our perception of masculinity is the lens one looks through while observing the Sports Illustrated pictures. These pictures are originally shot for the “male gaze” and upholds a heteronormative standard. There is little to question about a naked group of women on a beach, while noting if men were in place of the women, there sexuality would for sure be in question. Or if it is not in question, the gaze of the photo would be obscured and uncomfortable for the viewer. I think this connection is a smart and interesting one and I’m excited to hear you talk more about it in class.

  • April 3, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    These summaries are well written and informative. I really liked your analysis of Knudson’s piece, and how you mentioned the inherent contradiction that lies within the trope of motherhood as it is used by these authors. This dichotomy, that seems to divide feminists in regards to the military, is between those who believe that a woman’s participation in the war effort is a sign of the continued societal pressure for women to conform to masculine structures of power (this would be more along the “matriot’s” line of thinking), and those who believe that women MUST take part in the war effort in order to establish their societal equality. I think that this dynamic is an interesting one, but it does not change the fact that when women do choose to enlist in the military, their service is seen as a feminine novelty. I think that Berger & Naaman’s article on how female Israeli soldiers were portrayed during the Lebanese conflict of 2006 really does well to show how public depictions of the female soldier are heavily influenced by societal gender constructs. The main photos used in their article, from the Israeli military magazine Bamahane, is meant to emphasize the woman’s role in war but ends up basically marginalizing it. It will be interesting to see how far we can go with our notion of women in combat over the next several years, or if it will always be a point of heavily gendered discourse.

    • April 4, 2018 at 9:59 am

      Hey Alex!

      I agree with you that the Berger & Naaman article does an excellent job to show how public depiction of female soldiers are heavily influenced by societal gender constructs. What was shocking to me was that the Israeli government upheld those constructs and endorsed them through the Maxim Magazine shoot. The captions were equally as degrading as the pictures, purporting combat and feminizing it to show that the women found their husbands or helped keep the men physically fit. I think this is an excellent example of undermining minority status. I’m interested as well to see out far we can go with women in combat as the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement are gaining heavy traction. I also wonder if action has to take place before discourse changes?

  • April 4, 2018 at 6:55 am

    Hey Alex,

    Thanks for the post! I wanted to comment on the Sheehan article.

    The way Cindy Sheehan was criticized for protesting the US war effort after the death of her son (which in my opinion was totally justified) is a perfect example of the hollowness of the “support the troops”/ support the war movement. It clearly shows how people who do not support the dominant rhetoric of the pseudo-patriotic support the troops movement is ostracized from the community. The gender roles obviously play a large part in this system. The loss of a loved one is a very big deal but when people do not react the way they are supposed to they are faced by criticism. The usual army mother who lost her son in popular opinion will grieve silently while being proud of her son’s sacrifice. The father is supposed to hold back tears while being proud of his martyred son. These reactions are optimal for feeding the dominant rhetoric surrounding this issue while reinforcing societal gender roles.

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